Last year in spring, before the volcanic ash made travel from London a nightmare, I went to Paris for a short break with my family. While there, I decided to search for the Condesa de Merlin’s final home in the Parisian Père Lachaise cemetery. Have you ever been to a cemetery that has avenues, chemins and practically uses street addresses? Where tourists wander around, searching for the graves of poets, statesmen, generals and other memorable dead. Following the clues and the little map left by the Condesa’s most meticulous biographer, my two children and I hunted down Division 43 at the intersection of Avenue Transversale I and Chemin Pérignon. The problems started with the fact that the Chemin didn’t appear on the cemetery maps although we did find the Avenue Transversale I. So we had to guess the “way”, and then begin to understand the workings of the Divisions. Add to the mix the fact that her old biographer visited the site in 1899 and perhaps again around 1900 — and you can imagine that the directions were no longer so clear.
Finally, after squinting at countless crumbling and fading inscriptions on all sorts of monuments, we made a breakthrough! Barely legible, the names Ana and Carassa and Gonzalo O’Farrill could be seen on two very large but very decrepit mausoleums. I couldn’t have even made that out if I hadn’t brought along the transcript which was kindly created over 100 years ago. These were the graves of her great uncle the Minister of War and his Spanish wife and according to the directions, the Condesa should lie just beside it. I literally jumped up and down — surprising some other tourists who thought I must be crazy babbling in Spanish in front of a tomb from 1831. Other visitors asked me who was buried there — perhaps thinking it was someone they might have missed on their tour.
But nothing is ever straightforward with the Condesa and sure enough, beside the O’Farrill tombs were two new ones in shiny stone and one very old one from the 1820′s. But no Condesa or her little daughter, Annette. But we could not give up so we went on looking through all the Division and the surrounding ones too. We also searched for her son’s tomb. We did find that — by pure luck — as I was looking at another Spaniard’s tomb. That tomb also contained her sister, Pepita (here for eternity as Marie Josephine) and her niece, Pepita’s daughter, married to her Merlin cousin. It bore absolutely NO resemblance to the photo from 1900 — we had been searching for something completely different: a cross on a flat grave marker. My son and daughter had found nearly every moss-covered cross to no avail.
But where was Mercedes?? What had happened to her grave? The others were all there, roughly where the 110 year old map said. All these graves had been sold as Perpetual Concessions — forever. After criss-crossing the Division and leaving my poor husband to miss the Sainte Chapelle, a French woman, tending her son’s grave, took pity and asked us who we were looking for. Trying to explain our quest in French, she took us around the Division, explaining where it began and ended and also explaining that, no Perpetual Concessions were not perpetual –just 100 years. After the 100 years, if the family was not tending the grave, it could be deemed abandoned and the plot resold. Poor Condesa if that has happened! But what about the old O’Farrill graves? Ah, she said, they are tended by the Napoleonic Monuments Preservation Society (or some such name) — yes, O’Farrill was Joseph Bonaparte’s Minister of War.
Looking at my map and the directions, she finally paused and then said: “It might be my son’s grave. When we bought it the Bureau du Conservatoire said that the original grave contained ‘une dame, une comtesse’ so it is possible.” I was speechless. Her son’s white marble grave, planted over with colorful flowers was right next to O’Farrill’s neoclassical monument. My son had earlier pointed out that underneath the shiny new tomb were the outlines of an older base. It could be true! The kind lady advised speaking to the Conservatoire, which was closed until Monday. The answer lay in the old records.
After thanking her profusely for her help and offering condolences for her son, we ran for the entrance; the cemetery was closing and my children certainly didn’t want to spend their first night in Paris in a cemetery! A cemetery worker stood by the monumental entrance ringing a hand held bell – somehow perfectly in keeping with the melancholy nineteenth century tombs. As we left Père Lachaise, I thought about the good and bad luck that we had encountered on our visit. Bad luck about the actual grave but incredibly good luck to have met the lovely french lady. The Condesa had lost a little girl, Annette, and supposedly had been buried in the same tomb. Would she have minded very much if another grieving mother now covered the same grave in flowers to remember her own child?
Perpetual doesn’t mean perpetual under French law, but perhaps Mercedes’ memorial is not a crumbling carved piece of stone in Paris, but rather her books which are still read and her very name which is still repeated by the curious looking for Havana’s past. This living memory is just as real as General O’Farrill’s faded mausoleum where even the epitaph has almost disappeared.